Former 33rd Fighter Wing commander Jack R. Petry is remembered as a great fighter pilot

By JIM THOMPSON | The Destin Log, Fla. | Published: March 2, 2021

FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Retired Air Force Col. Jack R. Petry, who died at home in January at the age of 84, was remembered Saturday as a great fighter pilot and a caring friend with a wide variety of interests.

Petry's career included service as commander of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing (now the 33rd Fighter Wing) at Eglin Air Force Base in the 1980s. During that assignment, Petry was in charge of 2,300 personnel, including 120 pilots. The wing was assigned 75 F-15 fighter aircraft.

"He relished what he considered to be the best job in the world, a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot," his wife, Deb, said in prepared remarks delivered on her behalf during the commemoration of her late husband's life held at the Fort Walton Yacht Club.

Petry had a sailboat berthed at the club, and served as its commodore in 2000, among other roles he held there over the years.

In a book produced for his grandchildren, Petry wrote that he "will forever think of myself as a pretty good fighter pilot," and added that he would be pleased if that was the way he was remembered.

His skills as a fighter pilot earned him some good-natured ribbing at Saturday's ceremony. One mourner who spoke to the dozens of friends and family members joked, "He was the world's best, greatest and most humble fighter pilot — just ask him."

The ceremony included a full array of military honors, as Petry's widow was presented with a U.S. flag lowered from a flagpole at the club and folded into a triangle. Petry also was remembered with a rifle volley and with an air traffic control "clearance" for his final flight.

"Nomad (the name taken by 33rd Fighter Wing pilots), you are cleared for a max power takeoff on Runway 12 with an unrestricted climb on heading 270," a voice intoned for Petry.

Among the speakers was the Rev. Dr. Brad Bradford, worship pastor at Shalimar United Methodist Church.

"What do we do with the memory of someone like Jack Petry?" Bradford asked rhetorically before suggesting that his legacy gives his family and friends something for which to strive.

"He was a can-do guy," remembered retired Air Force Col. Dr. Keith Kulow, who had known Petry for 20 years.

"I don't think he had an enemy. He was that kind of guy," Kulow added.

Outside of his interest in flying, Petry was remembered Saturday as a man of many talents, from playing jazz piano to dancing to architecture to investing. With no formal training in architecture, he designed the Shalimar home which he and his wife shared, and also designed a cabin for the couple in Georgia.

Petry also was remembered as a loyal and caring friend. Dr. Lynne Reynolds, who had known Petry for 20 years, said she sometimes would talk her problems through with him and get some tough, but caring, advice.

"He pushed me a lot," she said.

Another friend, Debbie Loar, said his advice for handling difficulties was simple. "He'd say, 'Let's work the problem,' " she remembered.

During his 27-year Air Force career, Petry amassed 4,500 flight hours in a variety of fighter jets, including various versions of the F-84, the F-4, the F-111 and the F-15.

Among the more notable moments were the eight missions he flew at the controls of an F-4 in support of the ultimately successful NASA effort to land men on the moon. On one of those missions, Petry served as lead pilot in a formation of two F-4s that chased a manned NASA rocket into the skies.

The 1965 mission, in which Petry trailed the Gemini 4 mission with astronauts Jim McDivitt and Ed White atop a Titan missile, involved getting camera footage for NASA to determine whether the skin of the Titan missile, then new to the space program, could withstand the stresses of liftoff.

Here's part of how Petry described the mission in a 2019 interview with the Daily News:

"It's hard to explain how complex the intercept was," Petry said. "We would roll in at missile liftoff in a low, slow descending turn to 1.2 Mach, about 750-800 mph. ... So at 25,000 feet, the missile is now dead ahead of us and we're closing on it at a mile every five seconds."

Complicating the already intricate mission, Petry said was the fact that he and the other pilot, both with another officer on board, had to do the entire maneuver without radar so they wouldn't interfere with the launch.

"(I)t was an 'eyeballs-out' maneuver," he said.

During the maneuver, the two F-4s got a little too close to the rocket for NASA's comfort, and they were ordered to break off their mission. Petry, though — perhaps with a bit of the fighter-pilot bravado for which he was remembered Saturday — decided to stay on course.

"I had this thing right in my gunsight," Petry remembered, "and I said (to myself), 'You know what, I'm not going to break it off. I'm going to stay here until I run out of film.' ... I stayed with that missile to 68,000 feet."

An Outstanding Graduate of the Air Force Fighter Weapons School, Petry flew 134 combat missions in the Vietnam War.

His military decorations include the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medals, Air Force Commendation Medal, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross, Defense Superior Service Medal and the Air Force Expeditionary Medal for Grenadian Operations.

Following his Air Force career, Petry worked eight years in Saudi Arabia as senior adviser to the Royal Saudi Air Force and served as Mideast marketing director for the McDonnell Douglas aerospace corporation. He and wife returned to Shalimar in 1994.

In addition to his wife, Petry is survived by a son, a daughter and five grandchildren.

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